Thursday, July 31, 2014

Brady's command of concept, not big name weapons, key to Patriots' offensive success

New England Patriots' fans are the richest football fans on earth.

Maybe not in the cars that they drive or the clothes that they wear nor the abode that they live in - but separate from that, as in the currency called innovation, dedication to craft and attention to the most minute detail consistently displayed by the coaching staff and front office that has resulted in thirteen consecutive winning seasons...

...a fiscal resourcefulness and a thoroughly relentless professionalism that has the team built to win now and with a future so bright that they will still be a contender five years from now.  Maybe ten, or even twenty.

Bill Belichick spoils the hell out of us.
The future? Gronkowski and his protege, rookie Justin Jones

You bet he does, at least in an aesthetic sense, and to football fans who thrive on the intricacies of the game - the game planning, film study, discipline - there is no man in football more fascinating.  There have been record winning streaks and double-digit wins seasons where he literally had pulled players in off the street and integrated them to form a cohesive unit.

Yet, he is still doubted.  His personnel decisions are questioned and, at times, openly mocked - and his secretive manner about everything just adds to the fans' frustration, and his loathing of the media doesn't prompt them to paint a sunny picture of his disposition.

For years, fans and media alike have been trying to figure out what makes the man tick - why he drafts the players that he does, why he lets big-name free agents slide by without a second look, why he won't bring in a veteran tight end to compliment Rob Gronkowski...

Ah, That's the real issue here, isn't it?

Belichick introduced Patriot Nation to the wonders of the tight end-centric offense - the monstrously athletic pair of pass catchers that ran roughshod over defenses for two seasons before the entire thing started to unravel due to injury and madness, and Belichick just rode out the storm with what he had on the roster, which ultimately wasn't enough.

No need to go into the horrors of last season, other than to say that had Belichick known then what he does now, he probably would have tried to reinforce the position to guard against - well - guard against what ultimately happened.  Either that or take the approach he has this offseason, which consisted of taking his offense back to it's championship roots.

One never really knows what Bill Belichick has up his sleeve, but over the years he has earned the benefit of the doubt with his deft acquisition of talent - taking care of his own players first, provided he wants to retain them, then identifying players that fit their scheme in free agency and making offers, then adding the two together and subtracting them from the big picture and draft for what needs remain, if anything.

The fierce loyalty he has to owner Bob Kraft and his fiscal agenda is rivaled only by the loyalty to both his gut and his draft board that basically consists of identifying the players that they want and solidifying that before the draft.  Then it's just a matter of keeping their eyes and ears open to make sure they secure every one of them...

...which explains Tavon Wilson and Duron Harmon, and also Dominique Easley, Jimmy Garoppolo and James White - in each case the team had intelligence that those players were being targeted by other teams, which prompted Belichick to pull the trigger on them earlier than draft experts had them tabbed - in some cases a lot earlier.

So when the tight end-centric offense died it's slow and painful death in 2013, many refused to let go of the notion even after witnessing the success a power running unit that the offense evolved into by necessity and the mediocre were powerless to stop - but because of the injury to Gronkowski and, indeed, throughout the pass catching corps, that too became one-dimensional and the Patriots' offense was again to blame for the team's post-season failure.

And still, the Hooded One let opportunity after opportunity to reinforce the position pass him by, both in the draft and in free agency, signing only undrafted, developmental-type free agents - seemingly content to hit the field in 2014 with a mended Gronkowski and a set of backups that couldn't get it done on the biggest stage last season.

The reason why is difficult to comprehend on the surface, but it's as simple as a gradual yet seismic shift in the direction of the offensive philosophy - abandoning gimmickry in favor of fundamentals.

Gone is the "over-under" spread offense of the Randy Moss/Wes Welker era that excluded the tight end position in favor of the quick strike potential, and now the tight end-centric attack that materialized afterward for one epic season then faded with injury and felony has followed it into oblivion.

A harsh reality for some to accept, but within the scope of the Ehrhardt-Perkins scheme that Belichick employs, balance is so crucial that to tip the scales to one focus on the offense - in essence, to put all of your eggs in one basket - makes the offense easier to defend, particularly when facing an elite, attacking defense that can take away what you do best... the best way to attack an entity like that is to do everything well, and to have as many weapons as possible to rotate onto the field - and in theory, this Patriots' offense will be able to do that in a fashion that is going to be described as "Dizzying".

Consider that Belichick is going to be able to field an offense that will run primarily with a "21 Package" - a two back, one tight end, two receiver package utilizing the versatility of a group of "Skill" position players that will feature a rotation of six receivers, three tight ends and four backs, and will be able to fit any personnel combination into a concept that will enable Brady to morph the formation into anything he needs it to be to take advantage of mismatches.

This is why players such as H-back James Develin, rookie running back James White and free agent receiver Brandon Lafell are in Foxborough while "Big name" draft picks and free agent tight ends are not.  This offense is focused on one thing, and that is Brady's command of the offense - and Belichick has done a masterful job of providing him with a "dizzying" array of weapons to choose from.

This shift in philosophies brings a different focus to the depth chart.  The superstar is still the superstar, but will be harnessed within the confines of the scheme, and in Gronkowski's case, that means a visible attempt to remove a very large target off of his back by integrating him into the offense rather than featuring him - in effect, just making him one of the boys.

That said, the tight end position is still one of some conjecture, as the only locks thus far in camp are Gronkowski and Michael Hoomanawanui with Develin as a capable option at H-back, but the structure of the position sets the standard for the rest of the offense.

All three are powerful inline blockers, but while Gronkowski is on a level all his own as a complete tight end, both "Hooman" and Develin have shown soft hands as safety valve type receivers who are at their best chipping and releasing into the flat - but their real value comes in short yardage and goal line sets where they can flex their muscles and bury linebackers....

...which appears to be a favorite pass time of undrafted rookie free agent Justin Jones, who at 6' 8" and 275 pounds is a height-weight proportioned red zone monster who looks like a tackle but has the hands of a receiver, which he has been showing off in abundance in camp - and may upset the tight end apple cart if he continues to progress.

Develin's flexibility dictates the H-back label as he is a terrific lead blocker, quick enough and with plenty of lateral agility to clear out linebackers and defensive ends on the edge, possesses the aforementioned soft hands and demonstrates a stick-hunting style as a short-yardage ball carrier - and with the offense moving more to a two back pro set, the natural versatility doesn't restrict the playbook.

And that's the key.  In past years with the Patriots identifying particular players as their impetus for the offense, they had inadvertently put themselves in position to close off sections of the playbook when injuries occurred - so breaking camp this season with a group of skill position players that are seemingly just as anonymous as they are versatile, it gives Brady literally dozens of options in any given formation and in any given personnel package.

The result is that the offense will now have the ability to force the defense to defend the entire field - not because an Andre Johnson is spreading them out nor because a Dustin Keller is stretching the seam, but because any player on the field can run any route, and the defense must respect that or get burned.

And with Brady at the helm and running the scheme, the opposing defenses had better have plenty of soothing aloe on hand, because the burns will be a continuously occurring phenomenon...

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Patriots Camp: Rise of the Street Thug Defense

Ah, training camp.

It's hot, and the players have been digging at each other for almost a week - tempers rise with the temperature and the humidity, and it's just a matter of time before the players start taking exception to - well - anything that the person he's engaged with is doing.

That time was Wednesday morning.

In one of the most physical and mean-spirited practices in recent memory, scuffles broke out all over the place on the practice fields at Gillette Stadium, to the point that it started to resemble a mosh pit, only instead of burnouts at a thrash metal concert, it was with dudes in helmets and pads and coaches trying to separate them.
Browner (39) showing off his physical style on Wednesday

The New England Patriots under Bill Belichick have mostly been known as more of a cerebral team, what with the offensive playbook being thicker than most college level calculus textbooks and sometimes just as challenging, and combined with the defensive genius of Belichick, there's not much time for any such silliness.

But here's the thing: The Patriots need this, because to add the element of territorial aggression amongst the defenders means that they will not bend, they will not break - and if you try to invade their space, you are going to pay the price.

And newly acquired cornerback Brandon Browner appears to be the talisman.

"It was a physical one." Browner said after a practice in which he went out of his way to establish his territory in the secondary, "We had to compete out there. I’m tired of giving up balls so I just turned it up a little bit.”

What Browner was saying is that ball is his, the grass is his, the sticks are his and the air surrounding him is his - and if you want any of those things, bring some riot gear and a cut man, because he's not giving them up without a fight - whether you are a player, or a coach.

Receivers' coach Chad O'Shea became horrified at the physical corner's tactics with his charges and had some words with Browner right after he mugged receiver Kenbrell Thompkins on a crossing route - and the coach and Browner postured for a moment like they were going to square off, until cooler heads stepped in and took the two to their respective corners.

The incident was preceded by a string of physical encounters between Browner and Thompkins, which started with the smaller receiver shoving Browner to the turf in the end zone to catch a Brady offering, then Browner reciprocating on the next play, prompting O'Shea to shout at Browner that he had just committed a pass interference penalty.

Thompkins gave as good as he got in the exchanges, but after the third play in a row against each other ended up in a scrum on the turf and the ball in Browner's hands, Thompkins refused to accept a low-five from the corner and things disintegrated from there.

After the session was over, coach and corner "hugged it out", but Browner was decidedly luke-warm in response to questions from the media about the incident, saying, "As a coach, I gotta respect him - it's nothing that I want to talk about or put on TV."

Perhaps Browner was still under the influence of the adrenalin generated from physical exertion, but his words toward the coach were in no way apologetic, nor should they have been - but then he qualified his comments about physical play in practice...

...and then laid down a gauntlet for the offense to ponder, much the same way quarterback Tom Brady challenged the defense at the end of Sunday's practice.

"I need to be liked by my teammates," Browner said. "Those are the guys I'm gonna go to war with. But at the same time, I'm gonna be aggressive with those guys. It's going to make those guys better. And I hope they bring the same fire back at me."

“It’s very competitive. It gets heated at times. But at the end of the day we’re brothers and we’re family,” he continued, showing that he hasn't lost track of what's really important. “Nothing carries over from the field to the locker room, which is huge, very professional. Everybody out here is trying to get better every day. It’s going to get heated, it’s going to get competitive. But at the end of the day, we’re family."

Can we get an Amen?

Browner came from Seattle in a coup by the brilliant Belichick, and he embodied the attitude and ethic that became the Seahawks' "Legion of Boom", but he brought that attitude to that defense, he didn't acquire it from being there - and he's bringing that same attitude to a Patriots' secondary that also has it's share of aggressive and physical defensive backs.

Point being, this is Brandon Browner.  He is in Foxborough and in a Patriots' uniform because of what he brings to the field, and it goes without saying that Belichick probably hopes that the attitude is infectious.

Monday, July 28, 2014

Patriots' Résumé - James Develin

Dear Coach Belichick,

I was too small to play defensive end coming out of Brown University in 2010.

Which isn't a rarity for a kid coming out of an Ivy League school, as getting a great education to give them a leg up in life is what football players go to Brown for, not to come out of school with false hopes of being in the National Football League - and I did graduate with a degree in Mechanical Engineering - so to quote Bill Murray from Caddyshack, "I have that going for me, which is nice."

But setting at a drafting table and sipping coffee out of a Styrofoam cup isn't me - at least not yet, as my engineering degree will always be there for me to pursue as a second career whenever I choose. 

Football won't, however, as the window of opportunity to realize the NFL dream is so small that it has to be measured with a micrometer.

You know my story: Undrafted, went to play in Oklahoma City in the Arena League for half a season, then joined up with the Florida Tuskers of the UFL before the Bengals offered me a tryout, then sat rotting on their practice squad while thinking I was making progress in their system - but I found out differently when they cut me after the 2012 season.

But thanks to you, I was unemployed for less than a day.

You see, even though I played defensive end in college, I knew I would never be big enough to play on the line in the pros, and my coach at Brown supported that theory and actually played me at fullback in one game in my senior season, a position that both my agent I knew would be my only ticket to the NFL - and I began honing that skill set in the United Football League.

Four years later, here I am with a tangible opportunity to carve out a significant role in your offense, one that has evolved into an old-fashioned H-back position where I can play anywhere from fullback to tight end to being split out as a flanker.

I have shown both my versatility and skill, and while I'm no Gronk (who is?), I'm no doorknob either, to plagiarize Caddyshack once again - At 6' 3" and 255 pounds, I'm a terrific lead blocker and like me a little contact, pushing linebackers back into the second level where they belong, and I also have "soft" hands and enough speed to take a linebacker in the passing game...

...and if you decide to run with just Gronk and Hooman at tight end, you can count on me to back them up and, indeed, contribute to the success of the team in many different ways.





James Rittenhouse Develin
c/o New England Patriots
Gillette Stadium
1 Patriot Place
Foxborough, Massachusetts 02035

Career Focus:

Realizing my dream of being a Championship quality player for the New England Patriots before pursuing a second career as a mechanical engineer.

  • Bachelor's Degree in Mechanical Engineering from Brown University (Class of 2010)
Professional Experience:
  • 2012 - Present:  New England Patriots (NFL)
  • 2010 - 2012:  Cincinnati Bengals (NFL)
  • 2010:  Florida Tuskers (UFL)
  • 2010:  Oklahoma City Yard Dawgz (Arena)
Regular Season Stats (17 games):
  • Gained 10 yards on 4 carries (2.5 ypc)
  • Caught 4 balls for 62 yards (15.5 ypr)
  • Scored 1 career touchdown (Rushing vs. Houston in 2013)

Publisher's note: This"Résumé" is the work of the staff from Foxborough Free Press and is part of an ongoing series highlighting the players who - in our opinion - will be part of the 53 man roster when Patriots' training camp breaks.

Unless otherwise noted in quotations, the comments made in this article come from the imagination of the staff, not from the players themselves.

Be sure to follow the series, starting with the "Résumés" already posted:

7. Sebastian Vollmer - Offensive Tackle
8. Kyle Arrington - Slot Corner
9. Shane Vereen - Running Back

Brady challenges run defense to step up as Patriots' conclude first week of camp

The annual exodus from the New England Patriots' bandwagon has begun.

Things have started to settle down on the New England Patriots' rumor front - amazing how the start of training camp does that - though there are still a good number of die-hard detractors who believe that names like Dustin Keller, Jermichael Finley and Andre Johnson will somehow end up in Foxborough to save the team from its own short-sightedness.

The media is still split in this regard, as many, many bloggers - and not just a few beat writers - are taking the stance that the Patriots' offense is doomed without at least one of these guys - an astounding display of ignorance given that the Patriots' offense is as loaded as its been in years.
Starting corners? Revis and Ryan set to hit the field on Saturday

Case in point: Towards the end of Sunday's practice with storm clouds looming nearby, the Patriots' offensive line was manhandling the defensive line in power drills - and as they lined up to run the last play before the field was deluged in heavy rain, quarterback Tom Brady stood over center and barked out an unfamiliar cadence aimed at drawing the ire of the defense.

"Hit the weight room!"

The gauntlet has now officially been thrown down, which should make for a spirited week of practices when camp resumes on Tuesday morning - Brady's gesture sure to be taken as a challenge for a defense that promises to be the best that most fans have ever seen coming out of Foxborough, particularly those who became fans after Bill Belichick took over.

That said, let's have a look at how our camp previews hold up to the action on the field thus far:

Part 1: Kraft's business savvy, Belichick's commitment keys to the Patriot way

Belichick has resisted any urge he may have had (Believe me, he hasn't had any) to break up the philosophies and schemes put in place throughout the offseason by signing any one of a number of big-name free agents still floating around in the nanosphere of football - and will continue to stay the course.

There is a certain satisfaction that comes from watching your plans come together, no matter your occupation, and Belichick is as human as anyone else - but unlike many, he will not yield to public scrutiny nor fan sentiment.  He was hired 15 years ago to put together the best teams that he could, and it's worked out pretty well so far.'s resident Belichick hater Albert Breer tried to get under Bill's skin during a press conference in regard to the text messages that the team turned over between he and Aaron Hernandez, but Belichick shut him down in a hurry.  Breer knows that Belichick will not talk about non-football topics during press conferences, and he can't help but try to antagonize his long-time nemesis - but the volatile coach won out again, and Breer looked like a jilted bride - again.

Part 2: Offensive concepts grounded in history, but with a modern flair

As always, there is very little reason to doubt that Tom Brady is the best quarterback in the National Football League, despite all of the goofy lists that journalists put together to fill up their time during the dog days of summer.  He may not have the strongest arm (it's right up there), and he moves like a new-born deer trying to find it's legs, but there is no one better in the league at running their team's offense.

Garoppolo is enduring typical rookie struggles
Next question?

Understandably, rookie quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo is having to endure some struggles - and it all comes from making the transition from small-college to the pros.  He has fumbled the exchange from center four times in three days and had some curious decisions in getting the ball down the field - but these things are to be expected as his level of competition has increased by a factor of 10, and he ran his offense at Eastern Illinois solely out of the shotgun.

Sunday was a much better day for Garoppolo, who seemed to work out some of his accuracy issues and looked much sharper, his easy looking long ball consistently finding its target.

Still, the slippery exchange from center is not well tolerated by Belichick, and if he doesn't stem that tide soon, he's going to produce a well-worn path around the practice fields as it's Belichick's policy that fumblers run laps...

Part 3: Running Back competition wide open; changes certain

As expected, rookie running back James White has been one of the stars of camp, and as such, he is receiving quality snaps with the first team - displaying dazzling quickness to the second level in the running game and showing off his fly paper like hands in the passing game.

But with just two practices in pads - one cut short by Mother Nature's bad mood - the runners have just begun to become acclimated and no one but White and H-back James Develin have set themselves apart, a fact that only adds to the intrigue in the backfield as this is a make-or-break contract year for incumbent backs Stevan Ridley, Shane Vereen and Brandon Bolden.
White has been explosive

In fact, Ridley stepped up and had a bit of praise for the rookie, saying that while it isn't his style to single out individual players, White "has come in and done an awesome job."

Not everything was awesome for White on Sunday, however, as an attempted shoulder feign on cornerback Brandon Browner and subsequent sharp cut to the outside ended up with the rookie flat on his back - an invaluable "Welcome to the NFL" learning experience for the Wisconsin grad in that he now knows that some of the moves that college defenders couldn't handle probably need a little fine-tuning in the pros.

That said, Belichick had to have been ecstatic that as big a hit that Browner leveled him with, White held onto the ball.

First year power backs Jonas Gray and Stephen Houston have drawn attention to themselves for the wrong reasons, both joining the growing number of pass catchers that have dropped picture-perfect passes - while Develin has picked up the slack and has had several noted catches and is an absolute beast as a lead blocker in short yardage.

Part 4: Nasty changes coming along offensive line

As is usually the case, the defensive line seems to be further along in becoming reacquainted with contact with the pads coming on over the weekend - particularly on Saturday - though there were a few offensive linemen who stepped up and have had a solid week.

Rookie center Bryan Stork has stonewalled every tackle he's come across - though in fairness he has yet to tangle with big Vince or Sealver Siliga - but he's had to take a few laps with fellow rookie Jimmy Garoppolo for sloppy exchanges.  In fairness, these things generally work themselves out as camp progresses.

Halapio is struggling handling pass rushers
Incumbent center Ryan Wendell has had a decent time of it also, though the divide in athleticism between he and Stork is obvious - but the same can not be said for the battle at right guard, where veteran Dan Connolly is so far the better of two evils over rookie Jon Halapio in the weak spot of the line - and both could be ousted by the impressive showing of second year reserve Josh Kline, who is steamrolling everyone he faces...

...not necessarily a surprise as Kline did some quality work in spot duty and a couple of starts at left guard last season, and in the best-man-wins competition on the right, Kline could upset the apple cart and leave both Connolly and Halapio fighting for a reserve spot along the line.

Sebastian Vollmer is showing little ill effect from last season's broken ankle, and his nastiness was been on full display at right tackle, and he has even taken some reps at left tackle, showing better there than either regular left tackle Nate Solder and top reserve Marcus Cannon, who were both victims of Chandler Jones' repertoire of decisive moves - and it wasn't even close.

That said, everything seemed to come together on that final power drill, with the line shoving the defense backwards in run blocking, prompting Brady to lay down the "Hit the weight room" gauntlet.

Part 5: X, Y or Z? Labels mean little to enigmatic pass catchers

The biggest point of conjecture among Patriots' fans in this camp is the quality of receiving weapons that Brady is going to have to throw to - and while there have been the typical early-camp case of the dropsies, it's far too early to write off any pass catchers.

Those making their presence felt are steady veterans Danny Amendola and Julian Edelman, which was to be expected, with Kenbrell Thompkins showing a significantly improved approach and coming down with some nice grabs while Josh Boyce is showing off the after burners on the outside and from the slot, catching everything thrown to him.
Boyce is making a move with speed and hands

Newcomer Brandon Lafell had some unfortunate drops early in the week, but showed good concentration once the pads came on over the weekend and had some acrobatic, one-handed catches - which is great, but Belichick would likely prefer the consistency of Amendola and Edelman to the circus catch.

The big news of course is the presence of tight end Rob Gronkowski, whom the team is bringing along slowly after 2013's season of pain.  He hasn't worked much in the 11 on 11 drills, but in the agility training and individual drills, he does not look like a player who is coming off that torn ACL at the hands of Cleveland's TJ Ward last season.

That solves the dynamic tight end issue, and the Patriots have taken steps to take some of the focus off Gronkowski - and the only way to do that is to tweak the scheme, and in this case it looks geared to the power running game and play action - but many are unhappy that Belichick didn't continue his wave of the future thing and bring in a speedy "move" tight end to compliment Gronkowski - and can't seem to get past that to see the rainbow.

Part 6: Fantasy Island: A no-fly-zone where three and out is a way of life

The Patriots' secondary have been the stars of camp thus far, and it really doesn't take a wild imagination to understand why.

Revis is the star of camp
Darrelle Revis is the real deal folks - and not just in coverage down the field, which has been superb - but in the way that he's mixing it up with the receivers coming off the line.  Revis has always been aggressive in man coverage, but he's sticking so tight that he's pissing them off, which will come in mighty handy for frustrating the bejesus out of opposing pass catchers.

Sophomore Logan Ryan has stepped up to stake an early claim on the corner opposite of Revis - made easier by the absence of Alfonzo Dennard, though the way he's playing it may not have made any difference - while Kyle Arrington looks healthy and is making plays from the slot.

Brandon Browner is looking more and more like a nickle safety, offering tight coverage and redirecting routes to the inside where he is most effective, which bodes ill for recently re-signed Patrick Chung as that's where he figured to fit.

But perhaps one of the bigger surprises of this young camp is the improvement of third year safety Tavon Wilson, who seems to have followed up his success late last season and working with Revis in Arizona during the offseason into a spirited attempt to keep his roster spot - Duron Harmon is penciled in at strong safety, but Wilson is finally showing the play that cause Belichick to spend top shelf draft capital on him a few summers back.

Part 7: Talented front seven running on star power, health

Chandler Jones is straight up going off.

The third year defensive end appears to have reached elite status as a pass rusher as no one can handle him, particularly with that devastating inside move from the edge and the power display at the five-technique - and these are no slouches that he's going up against as Solder and Cannon have had a go at him to no avail...

Wilfork seems to have regained his lower-body explosion
...while the inside rotation of Big Vince Wilfork and Sealver Siliga are dominating the incumbents at right guard and center, which isn't so surprising, except for the fact that Wilfork is coming off a torn Achilles and Siliga has exactly eight NFL games under his substantial belt.

The return of Tommy Kelly from the Physically Unable to Perform (PUP) list was an unexpected and pleasant surprise, but other that, the offensive line seems to be handling the three techs in camp.  This is the position where the coaching staff will be easing in rookie Dominique Easley, who is currently on the non-football injury list and not participating in drills.

Unexpectedly, big time bust Jake Bequette is giving Michael Buchanan a run for his money and looks to have added a few moves to his one-dimensional pass rush.  This is likely Bequette's last opportunity to earn a roster spot on the line so he appears to be pulling out all the stops while New Orleans Saints castoff Will Smith looks like just a guy at this point coming off an ACL.

None of the three starting linebackers have made a splash in camp, nor do they need to, as cornerback Brandon Browner and coverage linebacker James Anderson have shown up in both the passing game and run support, while the rookie linebackers on the roster are getting used regularly by the tight ends in the pattern, at one point Michigan product Cameron Gordon being trampled by rookie tight end Justin Jones.

Depth on the second level has been a concern coming into camp, and continues to be as none of the players vying for limited spots have stepped up and established themselves.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Patriots' Résumé - Shane Vereen

Dear Coach Belichick,

Your offseason moves to supplement the offense is exciting, and it makes me think back to my freshman year at the University of California when the coaches integrated me into their two back system, pairing me with Jahvid Best.

We split the carries and we both had similar success in the passing game until he left for the Detroit Lions after his Junior season - so I had experience both splitting carries and being the featured back in the Bears' offense which should translate to the field this season coming up.
This play cost me half of 2013.  I plan on being healthy in 2014...

I have the talent to be a lead back in the NFL - heck, you drafted me in the second round in 2011 - unfortunately I have been able to play in just over half of the games since as injuries have sapped many snaps from me.  In fact, all three of my seasons here in Foxborough have started with pain, limiting me to just 176 touches...

A hamstring in training camp doomed my rookie season to appearing in just five games, and a foot injury in 2012 camp made me lose three games and I never was really fully integrated into the offense at all, used sparingly as a change of pace back in garbage time, mostly.

But then you did something weird - you let Danny Woodhead walk in free agency going into 2013 and I was ready to pick up his snaps, maybe more.  I even made it all the way through camp and my own personal expectations as to what kind of year I could have in contribution to the offense were through the roof - so when you benched Ridley in the second quarter of the opening game in Buffalo, I was more than ready.

Then on my first freaking carry taking over for Riddles, I broke my wrist.  It felt ok at the time and I even posted a career day, but after the game it started bugging me and the medical staff had me x-ray'd,  discovering the fracture.

I was so bummed, and you knew it too.  I needed surgery but it was cool that you waited until after the repairs to decide how to handle the injury - and imagine my joy when the surgery went well and you put me on the IR with a designation to return, which meant that I'd be able to come back and play after eight weeks instead of sitting out the whole year.

You put me right back to work, but since Riddles and LeGarrette Blount had formed a decent chemistry in alternating series, you set me wide in the pass pattern and had Tommy throw to me a lot - 70 targets in eight games - as we tried to take advantage of opposing defenses matching up linebackers on me, and while that wasn't always the case and sometimes I'd be looking across at a corner, I still caught nearly 50 of those targets and scored three times.

I played in a soft cast, so I don't blame you for not giving me many touches in the running game, but I'm hoping for more carries this season as I think I proved in that game in Buffalo that I was able and willing to run between the tackles and that I'm someone that you can count on to pick up the tough yards.

Your Buddy,




Shane Patrick-Henry Vereen
c/o New England Patriots
Gillette Stadium
1 Patriot Place
Foxborough, Massachusetts 02035

Career Focus:

To finally post a healthy season and be all that I can be to help my team win a title

  • Bachelor's Degree in Media Studies from University of California (Class of 2010)
Professional Experience:
  • 2011 - Present: New England Patriots
Regular Season Stats (26 games):
  • Gained 516 yards in 121 carries in the running game (4.3 ypc)
  • Caught 55 balls for 576 yards (10.5 ypr)
  • Scored 9 career touchdowns (5 through the air and 4 on the ground)

Post-season Stats (4 games):

  • Rushed for 108 yards in 20 carries on the ground (5.4 ypc)
  • 14 receptions for 180 yards (12.8 ypr)
  • Scored 3 career post-season touchdowns (1 on the ground and 2 through the air)

Publisher's note: This"Résumé" is the work of the staff from Foxborough Free Press and is part of an ongoing series highlighting the players who - in our opinion - will be part of the 53 man roster when Patriots' training camp breaks.

Unless otherwise noted in quotations, the comments made in this article come from the imagination of the staff, not from the players themselves.

Be sure to follow the series, starting with the "Résumés" already posted:

7. Sebastian Vollmer - Offensive Tackle
8. Kyle Arrington - Slot Corner

Friday, July 25, 2014

Patriots' Camp Preview - Talented Front Seven Running On Star Power, Health

Editor's note: The following originally appeared on

Dont'a Hightower's draft profiles all said the same thing.

"No better run-stopping linebacker."  "A larger and more athletic Brandon Spikes."  "Pro-ready middle linebacker." - these audits were universal, as were the one that told us that he didn't do well in man coverage, nor was he a true sideline-to-sideline type linebacker.

His versatility was intriguing, and Patriot Nation fell in love with the prospect of watching him flatten running backs and blind-siding quarterbacks, losing sight of the fact that there was no place to put the kid - except at strong side linebacker where his bulk and ability to take on and shed blockers to get to the running back was on display... was his inability to consistently stick with tight ends in man coverage, which became more and more prominent with every injury the Patriots' front seven suffered - eventually leaving him exposed on the second level with no visible means of support as middle linebacker Brandon Spikes was a one-dimensional human missile against the run and with only career reserve Dane Fletcher and a pair of rookies as a supporting cast.

Bill Belichick isn't blind, and he could see the same things that we could, but he just didn't have another option - that is, until one of those rookies, second-round pick Jamie Collins stepped up in a big way.  Collins is lighter than the monstrously sized Hightower and far more agile, displaying his sideline-to-sideline athleticism and man coverage wares late last season after being meticulously brought along by the coaching staff.

In retrospect, Collins' selection was most likely tied to the fact that Belichick did not plan on re-signing the highly volatile Spikes, his plan to slide Hightower to the middle put into place when the no-nonsense coach tired of Spikes' act and essentially fired him by ending his season by placing him on the injured reserved list with a chronic knee injury.

But, alas, the defense was too injured to be considered a championship unit, and despite their valiant effort against a clearly more intact opponent, their quest for a fourth Lombardi Trophy ending on a freakishly warm afternoon in Denver in the AFC Championship Game.

This crippled unit that had been missing both starting tackles and weakside linebacker Jerod Mayo most of the season, actually played well enough in that title game to win the contest - holding the Broncos prolific juggernaut of an offense to two touchdowns, but the Patriots' offense was even more injured and couldn't match Denver's weaponry.

That is important to remember going forward, as Mayo, nose tackle Vince Wilfork and three-tech tackle Tommy Kelly are back from injury and ready to resume their roles with a supporting cast that is both battle-hardened and vastly improved - both by addition and omission.

Gone are Spikes, Fletcher and fragile shutdown corner Aqib Talib - the latter replaced by the best cornerback in the game, Darrelle Revis, while Hightower is set to start the season in the middle of the Patriots' front seven, where he belongs.

Collins will start at strong side linebacker with Mayo resuming his role as team captain on the weakside, fully recovered from surgery to repair a completely torn pectoral muscle - the trio forming what promises to be one of the best linebacking corps in the National Football League, a significant departure from the unit held together by duct tape and wishful thinking for most of last season.

But even as ruptured as that second level was in 2013, their deficiencies were magnified by the losses of Wilfork and Kelly on the interior of the Patriots' defensive line, as teams started attacking the middle of the Patriots' defense with gusto...


Around this time last season, I proposed to the followers of this blog to ponder a scenario where nose tackle Vince Wilfork wasn't around any longer.

My bad.

Now, I don't believe in Jinxes, nor fate, nor luck - but to write that and then for Wilfork to crumple like a snow cone when his Achilles Tendon finally gave out on him in Week 4 against the Atlanta Falcons was just downright freaky - so I won't be doing that again.

What I do believe in is the defensive genius of Bill Belichick, and the way he held his defense together last season once Wilfork was lost for the year - Kelly and Mayo as well - only reinforced that belief, as only Belichick could take an undersized rookie free agent from Maryland and a thrice-cut rush tackle from Bowling Green and turn them into professional emergency interior linemen.

Joe Vellano filled in at nose for Wilfork best he could, bless his heart, but Patriots' opponents ran the ball right at him for over seven yards per carry as the Patriots as a unit surrendered a bloated 160 yards per game - the final straw a ghastly 280 yard gashing at the hands of the Denver Broncos.

This certainly wasn't all Vellano's fault - not even close - as Kelly and Mayo, two forces against the rush in their own right, dropped like proverbial flies in consecutive weeks following Wilfork's incident, leaving the entire run defense exposed with rookies pulled off the scrap heap playing vital roles in the front seven.

But Wilfork's absence was the most debilitating to the New England defense - and in truth, he was gimpy from the get-go in 2013, possibly dealing with a partial tear with the tendon before it finally gave out, but giving full effort in leading the team to decent yield of 105 yards per game to start the year...

...but then falling to dead last in the league when Wilfork went down before Belichick was able to do something about it.

And he tried immediately, sending a late-round 2014 pick to the Philadelphia Eagles for disgruntled nose tackle Issac Sopoaga who went straight to the active roster, then a week later signing out-of-work free agent Sealver Siliga to his practice squad.

But Sopoaga faded into nothingness almost as soon as he tried on his jersey and proved to be no upgarde over Vellano at all.

Belichick's hand was forced, not just by Sopoaga's disappearing act nor even the preposterous 280 yards given up to the Broncos - a game that Denver lost anyway - but by Broncos' coach John Fox, who attempted to sign the journeyman Siliga off of New England's practice squad just hours after the game as an injury replacement for his own depleted corps.

But instead of allowing Siliga to be swept away, Belichick activated the 6' 2", 325 pound wide body from Utah and plugged him into the starting lineup.

What did Belichick have to lose?  Vellano was just too small, and he had just traded away draft capital to Philadelphia on a failed experiment with Sopoaga, so he loaded up the line with Siliga and hoped for the best.

What he got in return was new life for his run defense.

Siliga paid immediate dividends as the yards per game average dropped by 40 yards and the yards per carry between the tackles dropped to a far more respectable 3.8 - and the effect on the rest of the defense was compelling - Siliga was taking on the double teams that Vellano was just too small to handle, freeing up three-technique Chris Jones to rush the quarterback and keeping the extra lineman out of linebacker Hightower's face.

That's what the nose tackle position means to this defense.  It is the anchor, the cornerstone - whatever metaphor you wish to describe it with is cool, as long as it means that it's vital to the success of the defense, because if 2013's Season of Pain taught us anything, it's that you can never have enough trustworthy help...

...which is why Siliga is back in a rotational grind with Wilfork at the nose, and also why Belichick invested first-round draft capital on a freakishly explosive rush tackle out of Florida to team with Jones and Kelly to form what should be one of the better 4-3 interior tandems in the league.

Dominique Easley could very easily have been a top three selection in the 2014 draft, as many draft experts and scouts placed him on a level comperable to South Carolina's Jadeveon Clowney and Pittsburgh's Aaron Donald - ACL tears in both knees during his career at Florida derailed those chances, but it is compelling to note that Easley was still in high demand by several teams despite his injury history...

...something that Belichick acknowledged after the draft when queried about the selection after the first round was completed, as many media outlets suggested that if Belichick didn't take him, the World Champions Seahawks certainly would have.

Reports coming out of Gillette Stadium prior to camp also suggest that the Patriots' are willing to take the "Collins approach" with Easley, bringing him along slowly and increasing his workload incrementally as he makes strides both in his continued recovery from the latest ACL tear and with acclimating himself to the defensive structure - because with Kelly and Chris Jones a capable rotation, the Patriots can afford to take their time with Easley.

That is a luxury that many teams can not afford - but as long as they are healthy, no team in the NFL can boast the top young talent that the Patriots employ in their front seven, as even without Easley in the starting rotation, New England boasts five top draft picks from recent years, with defensive end Chandler Jones joining Wilfork, Mayo and Hightower as first rounders and Collins as the Patriots' first selection in the 2013 draft, albeit in the second round.

Inserting Easley would make that six of seven, the only fly in that oinment being strong side end Rob Ninkovich, a former 5th round selection by the New Orleans Saints as a long-snapper, who quietly puts together solid effort game after game and is has been a fixture on the left side for the past five years.

All of this said, the issues with the front seven continue to be a question of discernable depth on the ends and on the second level.

Michael Buchanan enters his sophomore season in New England fully healthy and looks to back up Chandler Jones on the right side.  Buchanan should improve this year having a full offseason to bulk up as last year he came in 30 pounds lighter than his normal playing weight thanks to suffering a broken jaw in his senior season at Illinois, forcing him to subsist through a drinking straw for six weeks...

...while the team signed veteran rush end Will Smith from the Saints to provide depth behind Ninkovich.  The Saints waived Smith early in the offseason fearing that he would not be the same player after tearing his ACL in their 2013 camp - and while Smith had very few interested parties on the open market, Belichick is a softy for tenured veterans and he will be given his chance in camp.

If he can't perform, all hope is not lost, mostly due to the durability of Ninkovich, and also because of the signing of speedy former Panthers and Bears linebacker James Anderson.

Anderson is purely a nickle linebacker who excels at coverage underneath and will spell Hightower in passing situations, enabling Hightower to jump in on the pass rush as either an end or as five technique tackle.  This is the best case scenario for New England as the multi-tool Alabama product proved over his college career to be a pass rushing demon with a combination of incredible size - 6' 3", 270 pounds - and elite quickness into the gap.

So, combined with a much improved secondary and a full recovery from last year's Season of Pain, the New England Patriots enter training camp with high expectations, tempered by the knowledge of how impactful injuries can be - yet full of hope and the confidence that comes with falling just short of their goal last season despite suffering a series of injuries that would have devastated any other team...

...because no other team has an on-the-fly tactician and elite personnelman quite as able as head coach Bill Belichick.

This is Part seven of what will eventually be a nine part series previewing the New England Patriots' upcoming training camp, with part eight focusing on the special teams and part nine covering the intangibles.

Next up, only one spot being up for grabs, the specialists are pretty well set... 

In case you missed them, be sure to go back and read the first five pieces:

Part 1: Kraft's Business Sense, Belichick's Comittment Keys to Patriots' Way 
Part 2: Offensive Philosophy Grounded in History 
Part 3: Running Back Competition Wide Open
Part 4: Nasty changes coming along offensive line
Part 5: X,Y or Z? Labels mean little to Patriots' enigmatic pass catchers
Part 6: Fantasy Island, a "no fly zone" where three-and-out are a way of life

Thursday, July 24, 2014

New England Patriots' Projected 54 Man Roster

The following is a rolling 54 man roster that will be updated as situations warrant.  Generally there are but 53 players on an active NFL roster, but the Patriots have received an exemption from the NFL to carry an extra player in advance of Brandon Browner's four game suspension to begin the season.  When Browner is reinstated for Week 5, he will be added to the active roster and the 54th man will be waived or an injured player can be placed on the IR.

Quarterbacks (2)

12 - Tom Brady
10 - Jimmy Garoppolo (R)

Yes, only two quarterbacks.  This is not to say that Ryan Mallett will be traded, but the fact that he was limited in OTAs and in minicamp and is wearing a brace on his left knee is a curious development.  It is entirely possible that he begin the season on the PUP list, then either be activated just before the trade deadline or shut down for the season.  He is in camp and still wearing the brace, so it is a situation to monitor.

Running Backs (5)

22 - Stevan Ridley
34 - Shane Vereen
28 - James White (R)
36 - Stephen Houston (R)
46 - James Develin 

With contracts coming due on Ridley, Vereen and Brandon Bolden, it goes to figure that the Patriots are not going to be able to negotiate contracts for all three, so dumping Bolden now and training replacements for the other two is just smart business - though it is possible that Ridley and Vereen could be around beyond this year if their price is right.  Develin is looking more and more like a classic H-Back with his versatility.

Tight Ends (3)

87 - Rob Gronkowski 
47 - Michael Hoomanawanui 
45 - D. J. Williams

Gronkowski appears to be on track for the start of the season, which clears up the tight end picture a bit.  While Gronk is an all-around force, Hooman is a decent blocker and has shown good hands in his few targets, while Williams has yet to realize the potential that intrigued the Packers into drafting him as a "move" tight end.  Rookie free agent Justin Jones will probably find himself stashed away on the practice squad to refine his raw skill and potential. H-back James Develin factors in here as well.

Receivers (7)

80 - Danny Amendola 
11 - Julian Edelman 
17 - Aaron Dobson 
19 - Brandon Lafell  
85 - Kenbrell Thompkins  
18 - Matthew Slater 
82 - Josh Boyce

The status of Dobson's foot and the thought that his conditioning will be an issue upon his return may upset this apple cart, otherwise, this is a solid group with a good mix of individual skill sets.  New addition Lafell is a veteran who understands coverages and where the sticks are, and could be in the mix at the "move" type tight end position.  Boyce and Slater figure prominently on special teams as well.

Offensive Linemen (8)

77 - Nate Solder 
70 - Logan Mankins
76 - Sebatian Vollmer 
61 - Marcus Cannon
67 - Josh Kline
71 - Cameron Fleming (R)   
69 - Jon Halapio (R) 
66 - Bryan Stork (R) 

Noticeably absent from this list are last season's starting center and right guard, Ryan Wendell and Dan Connolly - but either could stick as depth should the Patriots decide to keep nine linemen.  Stork should start from Day one, as should Halapio with Fleming and Cannon providing depth on the bookends and at guard in a pinch.

Defensive linemen (9)

50 - Rob Ninkovich 
75 - Vince Wilfork 
93 - Tommy Kelly 
95 - Chandler Jones 
99 - Michael Buchanan
74 - Dominique Easley (R) 
94 - Chris Jones 
96 - Sealver Siliga
90 - Will Smith 

The duo of Wilfork and Siliga at the nose and the trifecta of Kelly, Chris Jones and Easley at the three-tech make the interior of the defensive line formidable, but questions remain regarding the depth at the ends.  Ninkovich and Chandler Jones form a strong set of bookends, but it remains to be seen if Smith's knee can hold up and if Buchanan has gotten his strength back after a broken jaw two years ago sapped much of it along with 30 pounds.  Hightower also figures in on the line as a five-tech nickle rusher.

Linebackers (6)

54 - Dont'a Hightower 
91 - Jamie Collins 
51 - Jerod Mayo 
45 - Steve Beauharnais
44 - Darius Fleming
55 - James Anderson

It is possible that the veteran Smith could double up on the roster at both end and strong side linebacker but a lot depends on the status of his wheels after recovering from ACL surgery nearly a year ago.  If he can,it may mean that someone like Fleming won't make the cut.  Anderson is an all-around veteran talent that adds a lot of versatility to the scheme.The coaching staff likes Beauharnais a lot, and he is also versatile enough to play in the middle or on the weak side.

Corners (6)

24 - Darrelle Revis 
39 - Brandon Browner 
26 - Logan Ryan 
37 - Alfonzo Dennard 
25 - Kyle Arrington 
35 - Daxton Swanson

Swanson is a wild card, and wins out over fellow rookie Malcolm Butler for the sixth corner spot.  Regardless of who actually wins out in camp, the top five corners won't allow for many snaps to Swanson or whomever - that is, once Browner returns to the team in week five.

Safeties (5)

30 - Duron Harmon  
32 - Devin McCourty  
23 - Patrick Chung  
21 - Jemea Thomas (R)  
27 - Tavon Wilson 

Solid group of safeties, with Chung brought back to be that intimidating presence in the middle in the nickle and dime situations.  Thomas is a versatile athlete that is probably a better corner than safety, though he played both in college.  In fact, should Thomas find a spot on the roster, his presence could eliminate one of the listed corners and make room for a player at another level - such as another tight end, safety or defensive lineman.

Specialists (3)

6 - Ryan Allen 
3 - Stephen Gostkowski 
48 - Danny Aiken

Aiken wins out over Tyler Ott in the competition for long snapper, though Aiken will probably be on a short leash after his late season air mail struggles.  Allen and Gostkowski are as dependable as they come.

Offense: 25
Defense: 26
Specialists: 3 
Total: 54

Patriots' Camp Preview - Fantasy Island: A "No Fly Zone" Where Three-And-Out Is A Way Of Life...

Editor's note:  The following originally appeared on

Fun time: Let's pretend for a moment that Bill Belichick didn't go out and sign Darrelle Revis.

For sure, he would have drafted a top college corner and probably made a play for some other crappy free agent wingman, but his base corners would have been Logan Ryan and Alfonzo Dennard - which really isn't the worst thing in the world.

Ryan brings a swagger to the position that can't be coached and Dennard is full of true grit, posting a solid year opposite Aqib Talib despite playing with a torn meniscus and a separated shoulder, both of which required surgery to repair - and the crazy thing is, the meniscus was scoped in-season, and Dennard missed only one week.

Both posted double digits in passes defended and over 40 tackles - as did Kyle Arrington from the slot despite playing nearly the entire season with a partially torn adductor muscle, for which went under the knife this offseason. Add all of this together with Aqib Talib and his glass hip/quad/groin, and the Patriots' corners were a hurting unit the second half of last season.

Yet, they still managed a middle-of-the-pack ranking in both yards and interceptions despite opposing offenses targeting them nearly 600 times, a number that ranked them among the most picked on secondaries in the league. Of course, many factors go into those numbers but the bottom line is that New England's defense as a whole surrendered a respectable 21 points per game, good for a top 10 finish.

Oh, and they helped hold Peyton Manning and Denver's prolific scoring machine to "just" 26 points in the AFC Championship Game, which would have been good enough, had the offense not been just as injured.

A good chunk of those targets and that yardage came from the production underneath, however, as the Patriots' linebackers had no answer for the opposition's tight ends and running backs, Belichick finally sacrificing his pass rush somewhat by making his defensive ends chip those players before commencing getting after the quarterback...

...the obvious trickle down effect being more time for the enemy signal callers - sometimes seeming to have all day to throw the football - yet New England's pass rushers still finished in the top five in the NFL with 47 sacks.

And all of this with a pieced together interior line and missing their top coverage linebacker.

The team is once again intact and healthy, save Dennard's shoulder - which should heal before camp breaks - and, of course, Talib has left for "Greener" pastures and to be with his buddies Wes Welker and John Elway...

And, yes.

With everyone on the defense returning to full health, a combination of Ryan, Dennard and Arrington would have formed a decent, young stable of corners - not elite, though the potential is there for them to be very good - and combined with a solid starting duo at safety, the secondary could have more than held their own.

But the Patriots did sign Darrelle Revis, who is - by the admission of his peers - the best cornerback playing the game today.  They also signed former CFL and Seattle Seahawks press corner Brandon Browner to transform what would have been a very good pass defense to one of the top troupes in the entire National Football League.

Darrelle Revis is the biggest free agent signing in the history of the franchise, but the scenario above should give pause to the folks that think he is a savior to this defense and to those on the opposite end of the spectrum who point out that he is just one season removed from an ACL tear.

But Revis' influence far exceeds merely shutting down one side of the field - and it would probably be safe to say that other than quarterback Tom Brady, only Revis and tight end Rob Gronkowski have a scheme altering consequence both for the team and for their opponents.

A true shutdown corner will make any defense better, but his very presence in the Patriots' secondary substantially influences how the Patriots' opponents attack the defense and adds a dynamic that has a trickle-down effect on the entire unit - and suddenly, New England has become one of the top units in the league.

His effect is not galvanizing, as the Patriots always are one of the more close-knit groups in football, nor is he the lynch pin that holds the unit together, and that's important to remember.  He is merely a prodigality, a very talented and confident extravagance that will have a diffusing effect on the opposing offense and an edifying effect on the Patriots as a whole.

How offenses will choose to attack the Patriots' defense isn't really a choice, rather, it is being restricted to attacking certain areas of the field - a sort of compartmentalization wherein the offense is forced into operating through a window, and how wide open that window is depends on the supporting cast which, as has been already mentioned, is quite good.

In fact, the opportunity for Ryan, Dennard and Arrington to have career-type seasons is a real possibility, so long as they understand that they will have to play their best ball, because the ball will be coming their way, simply because to the opposing quarterback, they are the lesser of two evils.

This shrinks the field of play, which is a ballhawk's dream because the space between players is diminished and makes it easier for a cover corner to break on a ball, has an adverse effect on the receiver's yards after catch average and promotes the presence of the nickle safety to roam no man's land over the middle because the Patriots can run with a single high safety.

But Revis is just one of three quality free agents brought into the defensive fold who have an opportunity for a real impact in the passing game.

Browner was released by the Seahawks mostly due to his at-the-time year-long suspension - which has since been reduced to just four games - but also because he had been beaten out of his starting gig opposite Richard Sherman.  This is not to say that Browner isn't still a fine player, but it became increasingly evident that his better fit was as a slot corner and/or nickle safety.

The three-time Canadian Football League All Star and 2011 NFL Pro Bowl selection has been blessed with great size - which he has been dining on for years - but has only linebacker-ish 4.65 speed, which doesn't allow for him to make up ground on receivers on the vertical if he loses them when looking back for the ball.

His 6' 4", 225 pound frame is as imposing as it gets as a defensive back - his physicality at the line of scrimmage promoting that even more - and it makes him a preferred key in red zone defense, but also for tracking tight ends and slot receivers across the middle.  His instincts and violent intent in run support also mandates that his area of responsibility be closer to the line.

A side effect in Browner taking on the tight ends, running backs or slot receivers, is that it presents a measure of automomy for either the weak side or strong side linebacker, who will be freed up to close on the screen and set a solid edge against the run - or even blitz...

...and the crazy thing is that Browner isn't the only guy that Belichick signed that can bring that skill set as cover 'backer James Anderson, late of the Bears and Panthers, was signed with exactly those properties in mind.

Misused in every defensive scheme he's played in - usually due to injury in the front seven - Anderson has probably found a home in New England where he can finally show off that ridiculous 4.48 speed, disruptive blitz package and physical press cover ability as a nickle linebacker.

In fact, it is these three signings that tell one all they need to know about the identity of the Patriots' pass defense.  Every single corner is at their best in physical press coverage, as are both Anderson and strong side linebacker Jamie Collins.  The starting safeties, Devin McCourty and Duron Harmon are both solid over-the-top defenders, with Harmon an excellent filler in run support...

...and with the defensive ends not having to worry about chipping tight ends and flankers off the line, they can generate positive momentum and get to the quarterback just that much faster - plus it helps the run defense because now New England doesn't have to sacrifice a player from the box into coverage and, in fact, can stack the box without losing anything in coverage.

There is no sense in trying to pin a label on this defense, because it is so loaded with versatile talent that it could naturally morph into just about anything that it needed to be - and in the hands of a defensive genius like Bill Belichick, well, it becomes a weapon.

No?  Well, consider that McCourty, Harmon and Ryan are all former Rutgers University teammates, forming a natural continuity, and all are established ball hawks in their own right - in fact, Ryan earned the nickname "Instant Offense" from his peers last season for his knack of getting to the football, either to knock it away or to just plain  take it away - while Browner, Arrington and Chung are hard hitters that have caused their share of forced fumbles...

...and combined with the top shelf coverage skill displayed by each, naturally including Revis and Dennard, the Patriots' pass defense has the look of a unit that will be able to dictate to the opposition like no other team in franchise history - better even than in the championship years, better even than violent mid-70's defenses.

In fact, the Patriots' defense is so loaded that even the Fantasy Football perverts will climb aboard the bandwagon as New England looks to have the swagger of a potential top three unit.  With the Patriots always promoting team unity above the individual, it appears that Revis Island has suddenly reclaimed enough metaphoric shore line that a new nickname is due...

...something like "Fantasy Island", where a No-fly-zone is always in effect and the term Three-and-out is a way of life.

This is Part six of what will eventually be a nine part series previewing the New England Patriots' upcoming training camp, with parts seven and eight focusing on the defense. Part nine will cover special teams.

Next up, how health in the front 7 will impact the entire defense the running game.. 

In case you missed them, be sure to go back and read the first five pieces:

Part 1: Kraft's Business Sense, Belichick's Comittment Keys to Patriots' Way 
Part 2: Offensive Philosophy Grounded in History 
Part 3: Running Back Competition Wide Open
Part 4: Nasty changes coming along offensive line
Part 5: X,Y or Z? Labels mean little to Patriots' enigmatic pass catchers

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Patriots' Camp Preview - X, Y or Z? Labels Mean Little To Enigmatic Receiving Corps

Editor's note:  The following article appeared originally as a contribution on

Bill Belichick is a leverage junkie.

He is also a master tactician who believes strongly in a roster that is fundamentally sound, featuring an offensive attack so diverse that with it he can dictate to the opposing defense with such a level of efficiency that they have no choice but to defend the entire field and hope that quarterback Tom Brady makes a mistake...

So imagine how he must have felt as piece after piece of his New England Patriots passing attack fell victim to injury last season, each incident reducing his leverage incrementally until, finally, his margin had evaporated to nothing.

That moment came in the AFC Championship Game, where his abrogated receiving corps featured just one healthy wide out, three that were working through injuries and one that had no business being a target - not to mention his starting tight ends were the less-than-imposing duo of Michael Hoomanawanui and Matthew Mulligan...

...while running back Shane Vereen and his soft cast managed to hang onto five passes to go with Julian Edelman's game-high ten, thrice-cut concussion-in-waiting Austin Collie pulled down four, but no one else had more than two - all while Brady was getting his ass handed to him by the Broncos' pass rush.

So eviscerated was his corps of pass catchers that at one point Brady was reduced to lobbing footballs at special teams' captain Matthew Slater - who has exactly one pass reception in six full seasons with the Patriots - while starting receivers Aaron Dobson and Danny Amendola were held in check, nursing a fractured foot and a torn adductor, respectively.

How Belichick's Patriots came to that moment isn't as important as the knowledge that, with health, the Patriots had plenty enough talent amongst the pass catchers to contend for a title, so there really was no need for wholesale changes, nor to bring in that one dynamic and expensive free agent that would "Put them over the top" - but to properly understand this, one must also have a grasp in the roots of their offensive system.

As we know from the first three parts of this series, in the mid-1970's, Ron Erhart and Ray Perkins designed a system under Patriots' head coach Chuck Fairbanks that allowed the team to transform into anything that it needed to be, so long as there was a competent quarterback running the show - running very basic plays from very basic formations, but with emphasis on the quarterback identifying the mismatches in the defense from the line of scrimmage and getting his supporting cast in their proper positions...

...calling for play action set up by a power running game, as the philosophy was designed to give the Patriots' offense the advantage in the often-poor weather conditions that New England is famous for - and at it's best would enable the Patriots to build early leads then stomp on their opponents collective throat with their devastating ground attack.

So when Belichick took over at the turn of the century, he and offensive coordinator Charlie Weiss installed their own revised version of that antiquated staple that featured a five-wide spread offense to maximize mismatches in the opposing secondaries and to take advantage of rapidly expanding rules favoring the passing game.

Initially, the running game still had a prominent place in the attack, but once Corey Dillon retired following the 2006 season, the once powerful ground game became little more than a change of pace to throw at a defense to keep their safeties from going off on their receivers - rendering the offense one dimensional without that power running game that took the heat off of Brady and off of the receivers.

The receivers were competent and the quarterback was excellent, but without that grinding running game the offense - which set scoring records and received many accolades during the regular seasons - consistently fell short in the playoffs.

Why?  Because the Patriots lacked the ability to make the opposing defense to defend the entire field.

It has happened every single season for the past decade, varying from the core concept that made the turn of the century teams so difficult to defend - whether it was the teams focused on the vertical game or the teams that were tight end-centric, the Patriots' lacked the ability to dictate to the defense.

Last offseason, they had the players to foster that ability, the result of four years of turning over the roster with the focus on returning to the fundamental excellence that gained the Patriots three World Titles in four seasons - but a series of arcane incidents laid waste to his plans.

When the Patriots selected tight end Rob Gronkowski out of the University of Arizona with their second round draft pick in 2010 and then Aaron Hernandez in the fourth, Belichick started a process that would see every position on the team's depth chart turn over in the space of four seasons, all the while being able to maintain dominance over the AFC East.

A little hard to believe, but true.  In those four seasons starting with Gronkowski and Hernandez, Belichick doubled up on every level of his team - the result being that he has caused nearly full spectrum attrition, with only Brady, Julian Edelman, Sebastian Vollmer and Logan Mankins surviving the purge on offense.

Rarely would you find a coach or general manager doubling up on certain positions with early round draft capital the way Belichick has, as a year later he did the same thing at running back by selecting Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen on the second day and then in 2012 he repeated the trend with defensive ends Chandler Jones and Jake Bequette...

...and then last season doubling up at wide receiver (and at defensive back), completing a five year overhaul this offseason with three offensive linemen and, perhaps, their quarterback of the future - and no sane person does something like that, particularly with top end draft capital, without having a plan.

That plan, of course, is to force the defense to respect all facets of the attack, since the team had fallen so far off of the intended course that they suddenly had no identity. 

Belichick tried to corner the market with the Gronkowski and Hernandez gimmick, but due first to injury and then to dark malfeasance, that innovative scheme crumbled right before his eyes, but even in his most vivid and wildest nightmares he could not have imagined that every warning sign and red flag that arose from the scouting process for both would manifest in an arcane series of felony and injury.

The intelligence was all very public - Hernandez was a dope fiend with an affinity for drink and firearms that not even University of Florida coach Urban Meyer nor teammate Tim Tebow could influence, while Gronkowski's back was so gnarled that he was limited to all of 16 games in his career at Arizona before opting to declare for the NFL Draft after his junior season.

But the prospect of unleashing those two within the Patriots' offensive concept was a hard thing to argue with at the time, and for a while it appeared that both would rise above their less-than-stellar scouting reports, prompting Belichick and team owner Bob Kraft to make them the richest set of tight ends in football history...

...but then Hernandez went on a murderous rampage while Gronkowski's twisted spine had team trainers working endlessly to keep him on the field, until a broken forearm essentially ended his 2012 season and put his 2013 season in serious jeopardy with multiple surgeries to the arm to install plates and combat infection - and while they were at it, the team went ahead and had a procedure done on his back to relieve his painful symptoms.

As it turns out, Gronkowski played in eight games in 2013, racking up some impressive numbers, all while wearing a brace that doubled as a soft cast on his forearm - which worked like a charm but couldn't protect his knee from Cleveland Safety T. J. Ward who went low and dirty on Gronkowski, shredding his ACL and MCL and causing little daggers to come flying out of Belichick's eyeballs.

Yet despite all of this, and in addition to quarterback Tom Brady working with receivers that were either inexperienced or injured or both, the Patriots managed a top 10 finish in total offense and a top three ranking in scoring offense - and the reason for that, as it has been for most of Belichick's reign, is the offensive concept.

Gronkowski is indeed a rare talent, one of the very few actual "Stars" in the Foxborough fold, and his presence means just as much for the success of the team than his absence means for their failures.  With him in the line up, Gronkowski demands constant double teams, which means that he will take - at a minimum - a linebacker and a safety up the seam with him...

...leaving the box light and the wide receivers with only single coverage to beat - meaning, of course, that Gronkowski is just as lethal a weapon as a decoy as he is with his sure hands in the pattern - but his influence starts long before the ball is snapped, as Gronkowski is a powerful and devastating blocker in the running game and it is up to the defense to try and figure out if he's staying in to block, releasing into the pattern or chipping at the line and floating into the flat.

This causes the defense to become reactionary instead of attacking, giving Brady not only more options on the play call, but also the extra split second for his primary target to work his way open off the jam.

Hernandez was the initial beneficiary of the Gronkowski phenomena, but with the tight end-centric philosophy now on life support, the Patriots have taken the aforementioned measures to ensure that the only thing that has dominion over the playbook is in how Belichick decides to attack a certain foe as part of his normal opponent-specific game planning.

There is a limit to the effectiveness of the scheme, however, but it involves taking so many debilitating losses in the battle of attrition that there just aren't enough weapons to dictate terms to the defense - which happens to a Belichick coached team very rarely, but with last January's AFC Championship Game a perfect example.

With receivers Kenbrell Thompkins and Josh Boyce done for the season along with Gronkowski - and pass catchers Danny Amendola and Aaron Dobson clearly limited due to injury, Brady went in to the title tilt with just one healthy core receiver in "Minitron" Julian Edelman and a clear downgrade at tight end with try-hard Michael Hoomanawanui.

So under-manned was New England that all the Denver Broncos had to do was stop the Patriots' power running game by stacking the box and daring Brady to throw to his afflicted receiving corps - and even though Brady managed to make a game of it briefly in the fourth quarter, he did so against a Broncos' defense that was in full prevent mode.

So with human nature being what it is, at the start of the offseason many fans were screaming for Belichick to go deep with veteran receivers and tight ends in free agency, forgetting that the pass catching corps was already loaded with talent that fit the scheme and would have a full six months to recover from their injuries - bringing in only Carolina Panthers' possession receiver Brandon Lafell in free agency...

...which was ok until the draft yielded only a seventh round garden gnome at wide receiver and no tight ends at all - instead, Belichick went heavy to bolster his running game by bringing in three road-grading linemen and a Danny Woodhead type runner that could end up being the team's "featured back", such as it is in the Patriots' scheme.

Belichick doesn't select players from the draft or in free agency to mold the offense around any longer, he selects players that have exhibited the smarts and versatility to grasp his conceptual scheme, which in turn opens up his playbook to any and all possibilities, not limiting himself to labels such as "Deep threat" or "slot receiver" or "Red Zone threats", as he is able to incorporate all of these onto the field regardless of the personnel on the field.

Labels are limiting in his offense, so while many jump on the bandwagon of every free agent or talent considered to be trade bait, most of them don't possess the requisite versatility, either because they are one dimensional or are coming off debilitating injury - passing on them to employ players of whom the system can get the most out of.

So in lay terms, Edelman and Amendola would be considered slot receivers, Dobson and Boyce the speed merchants that are vertical threats and Thompkins and Lafell possession receivers that operate more on the intermediate to downfield levels - but the truth is that all of them are able to line up anywhere in the formation with equal success.  Same with most of the running backs, as we will see Shane Vereen, and rookies James White and perhaps Stephen Houston line up all over the formation.

It's a diverse lot so far as the size and speed that they bring to the field, but because of their versatility, Brady can put a defense back on their heels and take advantage of the deficiencies on the opposing defense simply by barking out a concept from the line of scrimmage, no matter who he has on the field.

Each and every player is required to know where every one of their teammates are supposed to be in any particular formation, made simpler by packaging several "Window Dressing" looks into a single concept - and since all the players are trained from day one to know what route each position is supposed to run, all they need to know is where Brady wants them in the formation and they'll know what to do.

They are that versatile, and together with Gronkowski and the twin passing backs in Vereen and White, Brady will be able to make the defense feel as if they are in the wrong formation every time - even if they are in the right one - with what is going to appear to be a seemingly endless parade of personnel packages and formations.

Even so, some fans and media are still clamoring for Belichick to mortgage the franchise's future for a game-breaking receiver and to take on one of two tight ends coming off of devastating injuries, but the fact is that the offense is already loaded and, with reasonable health, can be anything that it needs to be each week...

...with Lafell being the only import worth mention, because he embodies what Belichick is looking for in players for his system.  Two-thirds of his offensive snaps with Carolina came out of the slot, from where he was able to stretch the seam with his height and more than adequate speed.  He is also an accomplished and willing blocker both inline and down the field, which adds yet another layer to the excellent depth.

As a direct result, much of the intrigue has been taken out of the camp battles on offense so far as the pass catching positions are concerned, where the only likely turnover is in the backfield, and shouldn't impact the receiving corps at all.

That said, The Patriots locked in on the roster likely include Edelman, Amendola, Lafell, Thompkins, Dobson and Boyce while the stable of tight ends should include Gronkowski, Hoomanawanui and H-back James Develin - with running backs Vereen and White joining in the fun out of the backfield at any given time.

Of course, injuries could play a part in one of the fringe players finding their way onto the roster, but entering camp only Dobson is not fully healed and is on the PUP list, and can come off of the list at any time.

This is Part five of what will eventually be a nine part series previewing the New England Patriots' upcoming training camp, with parts six, seven and eight focusing on the defense. Part nine will cover special teams.

Next up, how the changes in the secondary will impact the entire defense.. 

In case you missed them, be sure to go back and read the first four pieces:

Part 1: Kraft's Business Sense, Belichick's Comittment Keys to Patriots' Way 
Part 2: Offensive Philosophy Grounded in History 
Part 3: Running Back Competition Wide Open
Part 4: Nasty changes coming along offensive line